I’ve never written about art and don’t know how to, but when a piece of art stops you up short and sends your mind off somewhere away from the gallery, it’s worth noting. That happened to me the other night at the opening of Terry Durst’s “The Carter Excavations” at Arts Collinwood Gallery.
Amy Sparks does know how to describe art, so I’ll quote what she once said about Terry’s work in The Free Times. “Durst uses rough and scarred found objects, recombining them in new, mostly formalistic relationships. Sculptural wall hangings, they hold power by the sum of their parts. There is a lovingness about these objects – castoffs that find new homes via Durst’s shepherding.”
As I looked at Terry’s wall hangings, I was admiring and enjoying, but I was also thinking, verbalizing to myself about how so many of the pieces were in twos, for instance — two boxes together. I wasn’t feeling so much, though I was enjoying the objects’ beauty and puzzling over their meaning. Then I came to the large piece in the center of the room that looked (to me) sort of like a fence, called Exterior Wall.
When I saw that fence thing, I felt. I stopped and, and my mind went careening off somewhere else. Nostalgia is a cheap word for it: what I was feeling had to do with our attachment to objects in our lives. In the present [all these words for the feeling have come later, of course], we live with objects and get to know them intimately – their texture, their nicks and flaws and colors.
I’m aiming for this feeling when I write about my parents’ house in Missing. Here’s a passage where I’m describing how a hall closet in our house never seemed to change. It was a place that was never cleaned out, where nothing was ever thrown away.
The linen closet upstairs contained a dozen pairs of high-heeled shoes from the thirties and forties. In my lifetime, my mother suffered from corns and other foot ailments and wore big orthopedic shoes, of which she complained bitterly. I loved dressing up in her old fancy shoes, but I would have preferred to see her wear them herself. Shelves of the closet were filled with bottles and jars of old ointments and soaps and lotions, in addition to the sheets and towels stuffed onto shelves. I thought of this closet as a drugstore that could be raided for shoe polish, shoelaces, Vick’s Vaporub, conditioners, shampoos, permanents, hair rollers and clips. Stuff sat in that closet for years and years – if you reached in far enough, you could find whatever you wanted.
The nicks and chipped paint on Terry’s “Exterior Wall” made me think of all this. The things, the items surrounding you, the flaws and chips that you live with, that you notice but then stop noticing because they’re so much a part of your everyday life.
Donald Hall’s poem (The New Yorker, 1/4/10) called The Things, whose title I stole, gets at this also, I think. It’s not the artworks around his house, not the de Kooning painting he’s gazed at over the years, not the objets d’art, but just the objects. Little models of baseball players, a dead dog’s toy. The “trivial” things lying around are what his eyes return to.
When my dad died when I was 19, my first death, I was bewildered by how all his stuff remained behind. It seemed strange to me that his wheelchair sat empty in his room and that his pipes were still in the rack when he was no longer there to smoke them. I hated throwing away the old envelopes he jotted notes on, because they contained his handwriting.
I’ve often wished I had written down the titles of my parents’ books. The mantle held a few, and we had two other bookcases. The books on those shelves remained untouched for decades. I saw them every day. Richard Armour’s humor books. The Egg and I. The Thurber Carnival. Mark Schorer’s biography of Sinclair Lewis. Books of an era. I wish I had photographed them. They seemed unchanging, but, of course, now I know they weren’t.